Good afternoon. This is billed as “An address to the couple on Christian marriage”, but it’s not just addressed to the couple. It’s primarily to them of course, but it’s meant for everyone here, not least myself; I also need to be reminded regularly of what I’m about to say.
May I start by saying that I cannot find the words to express the sense of privilege I feel at being invited to speak at this momentous day in the lives of Ben, Kerry, and the assembled families whom they’re about to unite into one family.
The family is something that we all too often take for granted. If I were to go out into the streets of my home town, and pick on people at random to ask what makes up the basic building block of society, I know most people in our culture would answer, ‘the individual’. But that’s a very modern, and peculiarly Anglo-American way of looking at society. The Christian view, and indeed the view of most other cultures around the world, is that the
basic building block of society is not the individual person but the family unit. If you think of the society we inhabit as a wall, the individual bricks in that wall are not me, and Fred, and you, and you, and you....rather the building blocks are families. And if the individual building blocks, families, break down in large enough numbers, it can only be a matter of time before the whole structure - the whole society - itself collapses. That is why from the Christian viewpoint, Ben and Kerry, you are not just committing yourselves to one another; you are committing yourselves to upholding a stable and inclusive and orderly society, a society in which personal relationships in general should reflect the mutual love, respect and goodwill that you show within the marriage.
Thus far I imagine most people here, whether or not they think of themselves as religious, will understand and even sympathise with this Christian viewpoint. However, the Bible says some things about marriage that can be difficult for even committed Christians fully to understand and accept.
For example, parts of the Bible suggest that when a couple marry, they somehow fuse together and become a single, composite being. While not everyone here will fully accept that picture of marriage, I think pretty well everyone will grasp its implications: namely that once you are married you cannot put your own interest ahead of your partner’s; the image of husband and wife as a single entity, fused together in eternity, speaks powerfully of the long-term commitment, patience and self-sacrifice needed to make family life work. Ben & Kerry, this means each of you putting the other first. It means keeping your interests harnessed together such that the many things you will disagree on during your life together never get the chance to drive a wedge between you. In short, it does mean acting always as if you are one person, such that what is good or bad for either one of you is seen as good or bad for the other also.
A quite different but equally dramatic picture of married life is offered by St. Paul. Paul wrote many controversial things as I’m sure you know, and among the most controversial parts of his teaching are his instructions to married couples. For example, another part of the chapter from Colossians that was read earlier says:
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
It’s no surprise that most young couples leave these words out of the wedding ceremony today, along with the traditional bride’s vow to ‘love, honour and obey’. But these words are less unequal, and theologically more central, to the traditional Christian understanding of marriage than is often realized. Because St. Paul holds out as the blueprint for marriage nothing less than the cosmic relationship between Jesus and the worldwide body of Christians - that is to say the Church. He instructs wives to submit to their husbands in the same way that the Church is expected to submit to Christ. And what Paul goes on to say to husbands is every bit as challenging, if not more so: they are instructed to love their wives as Christ loved the church and (this is all-important) laid down his very life for it. In other words, the picture of the wife as the husband’s servant only works if the husband is seen as the wife’s . . . sacrificial offering. (Pause for a few seconds to let everyone reflect on that thought). Each is required to put the other’s happiness and well-being before his or her own - a startling picture of submission and self-sacrifice on both sides in the interests of a stable, caring, self-sacrificial home life for the couple and their children.
I was inevitably going to get round to the topic of children, and not just because you have not just the usual two, but three pairs of potential grandparents who aren’t getting any younger and are egging you on. One of the most important qualities of marriage is that it provides a safe and stable long-term environment for bringing up children. But in the Christian tradition, children are not merely to be loved, protected and provided for.
· Firstly, they are meant to grow up learning the difference between right and wrong from parents who are themselves upright, honest and hard-working members of society. Ben and Kerry, you are admirably equipped to provide just that kind of moral enrichment.
· But secondly, in the Christian tradition, children are meant to grow up inherit the beliefs, values and traditions of Christianity itself, thus ensuring that the Christian faith itself is safely handed down to a new generation.
Of course, Ben and Kerry, it’s entirely up to you if and when you have children, but we know you will not begrudge us our enthusiasm to see another generation growing up to carry on your family name and the values that our united families cherish. One of the greatest comforts our generation can experience is to see our children growing up, having children of their own, and taking over the leadership of the family as we had to do as our parents aged.
Finally Ben & Kerry, it is a central part of Christian marriage that today should be an indelible memory in both of your minds - and the photographs, the gifts, and the sense and scale of the occasion are all meant to help keep this memory alive. For there may well be times in the distant future when you do find yourselves at loggerheads over some major life decision or even some relatively minor difference of opinion; there may be times when your passion for one another seems at a low ebb, or when you are filled with mutual indignation or tempted to be disloyal to one another, whether physically or just in what you say. And the hope of everyone here is that if those situations arise you will be able to look back on today, to remember the warmth, the excitement, the readings, the prayers, the promises, the overpowering love that we can all see in your eyes today, and in that moment to put aside those temptations, put aside those differences, and rejoice in what you have together.
And so to conclude, we all want to say once again, heartiest congratulations to you both on the marriage that is about to be solemnised. You make a wonderful couple and we love you deeply. We want this day to be an unforgettable experience, the memory of which will help to reinforce your love, and your total commitment and your patience with one another through all the happy, exciting, and perhaps sometimes challenging years that lie ahead of you.